Socialism With American Characteristics By: Luke Pickrell and Myra JanisRead Now
The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2019 and signs would appear to augur well for the organization in the coming years. Recently, the party discussed running candidates for office.1 Membership numbers are rising,2 and the party credits itself and its allies for the “broad front” that defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.3 Having abandoned the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization in a crisis of political direction, and gazed upon the desolate expanse that is revolutionary socialism in the United States, some comrades have turned away from the red rose toward the tried and true hammer, sickle, and gear. Unfortunately, these comrades will not have escaped the politics of class collaborationism by fleeing DSA and may find themselves in even hotter water.
The CPUSA marked its centenary with an updated version of the party platform: “The Road to Socialism USA.”5 Reading through the document is daunting. An astounding 61-pages long, it meanders across ten disorganized primary sections and dozens of subsections. Boundaries are porous: the introduction contains a conclusion, ideas repeat, and lists of occasionally intriguing demands are relegated to sidebars. Friedrich Engels’ critique of the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt Programme - “The fear that a short, pointed exposition would not be intelligible enough, has caused explanations to be added, which make it verbose and drawn out”6 - applies just as accurately to the CPUSA. These comrades, hoping to attract as large an audience as possible, have thrown everything but the kitchen sink toward the proverbial wall in a desperate attempt to make something stick. Asked to accept the program, one struggles for solid footing. How can one determine agreement with such an incomprehensible document?
But determination brings rewards. Cutting through girth and clearing away the tired abstractions (“injustice,”7 “a better world,”8 “the 1%,”9 “epic struggles,”10 “the greed of the few,”11 “fascism”12) reveals two fundamental flaws: a commitment to the decades-old People’s Front policy of alliances with anything left of the “extreme right”13 and dedication to the Constitution and the parameters of the capitalist state. In other words, socialism with American characteristics. What follows is an elaboration on these two flaws. While the comrades in the CPUSA may be motivated by a genuine desire to fight for the interests of the working class, their program provides no path forward and opens the door to opportunistic zigzags and the internal rule of bureaucrats.
Continuing the People’s Front
This is far from an exhaustive chronicle of the ups and downs of the Communist Party (a job that E. J. Hobsbawm described as presenting unique difficulties).14 Rather, reading the CPUSA program allows one to reflect on the rise and fall of American Communism and the world socialist movement more generally. At its height, the Party contributed several victories to the class struggle in the United States. It carried out exceptional work in organizing the unemployed during the Great Depression15 and defended the Scottsboro Boys when the NAACP refused.16 The Party’s victories in states such as Alabama17 and New York18 are well-documented.
The United Front strategy - how the party relates to the political institutions of the capitalist state to win members and strengthen the fighting power of the working class - began during a period of global defeat for communism.19 Having emerged victorious from the Russian Civil War, the newly formed Third International expected a quick succession of civil wars and Communist victories across Europe. But defeats in Germany, Poland, and Hungary augured ill. The working masses had not rallied behind the banner of the Communist Parties, and the Bolsheviks were left isolated in Russia. After fending off his ultra-left detractors, Lenin oversaw the entry of the Communist Parties into alliances with non-Communist working class political forces (including Social Democratic parties) under the explicit condition of retaining organizational independence and freedom to criticize the reformist leadership. In theory, the United Front was sound.
Principled alliances with reformist parties were scrapped when Stalin came to power. The Communists had zigged right, only to zag left during the Third Period of 1928 to 1933. The Peoples’ Front (America’s version of the Popular Front) began a final lurch back to the right in 1935 in the context of impending war and the rise of German Nazism. Ben Rose described the People’s Front as a “gradual shift towards a search for alliances and influence with the leadership of organizations believed to be instrumental in fighting domestic and international fascism, as well as those capable of pressuring the Roosevelt administration.”20 Tactical alliances with a section of the capitalist class subordinated working class independence to the goals of capitalists. The goal of socialism in America was abandoned, and in 1937 the Party dropped its slogan, “Toward a Soviet America.” The day-to-day practice of fighting for reforms submerged the goal of a classless society, and socialism with American characteristics - socialism, after all, being just as American as baseball and apple pie - became the norm. As Mike Macnair explains: “‘Official communist’ and Maoist parties committed themselves to rejection of the most elementary Marxist principle - the independent political organization and representation of the working class - in favor of ‘democratic’ coalitions which repeat the projects Marx and Engels fought against - or, worse, in favor of coalitions for ‘national independence’, which subordinate the working class to the party of order.”21
The call for a People’s Front continues today. In the name of fighting the extreme right - a nefarious entity that is “inadequate and incompetent”22 and “backward”23 one moment, and “fascist”24 the next - the program urges unity with all progressive forces in “defeating the extreme right’s implicit and explicit drive toward fascism.”25 Divisions within the capitalist class “contain opportunities for working-class and progressive forces. On some issues, the more moderate, more realistic sections of the capitalist class and their political operatives move parallel to the people’s movements, as important though partial and temporary allies. They can be pressured to adopt a more progressive stance by the strength of the people’s movements and mass sentiment.”26
The program encourages alliances with the Democratic Party because it is “not identical”27 with the Republican Party. The Democratic Party’s history - the “main vehicle used by African American and Latino communities to gain representation, as well as the main mechanism used to elect labor, progressive, and even Left activists to public office…”28 - supposedly demonstrates differences with its elephant brother. Furthermore, alleged rifts within the Party can be used to workers’ advantage. One reads: “[T]here exists an internal struggle within the Democratic Party among centrist forces who collaborate with the right wing, centrist forces opposed to the right wing, and more progressive, even socialist, trends.”29 Any desire to build a mass party must bow to the existing facts of the power of the capitalist class and the Constitutional regime.
With Friends Like These…
Calls for an alliance with the Democratic Party and the NGO complex against the far right are equivalent to asking the fox to guard the hen house: the fox eats its plump ward every time. Such proposals are the equivalent of trusting the bourgeoisie of the French Third Republic to eradicate the threat of a clerical-monarchical Thermidorian reaction. During the Third Republic, the proletariat was lured away from independent politics by liberals who incessantly hollered about a grave threat to the Republic as justification for uniting under one banner. With danger knocking at the door, this was no time to wage the class struggle. Karl Kautsky explained the reality behind the facade: “...the bourgeois liberal politicians have every interest in the struggle against the Church, but by no means in triumphing over it. They can only count on an alliance of the proletariat as long as this struggle continues.”30 Ultimately, a definitive victory is illusory. The imperative to unite against a bigger-bad never ends. How ironic that the Communist Party now advocates politics far to the right of those espoused by Second International Marxism’s famous pope-turned-renegade during his period as a revolutionary thinker.
The Democratic Party is more concerned with maintaining the rule of law than prosecuting an effective campaign against an increasingly right-wing and authoritarian Republican Party and its hangers-on. See, for example, their impotent attempt to understand and resolve the events of January 6th, 2022, compared to their focus on the chauvinistic conspiracy theory of Russiagate. The state’s repressive apparatus is far more concerned with countering perceived threats from the left than from the right. The bourgeois state fundamentally cannot grapple with the real social issues (poverty and economic precarity, first and foremost) upon which the seeds of far-right extremism germinate. Without class independence, the proletariat stays moored to the dock of bourgeois politics. Worse, if the working class does not create independent organizations of political power, it will be unable to stop a real fascist threat. One finds a terrifying historical specter in Chile during the Allende period when the Popular Unity government disarmed its supporters in the face of an impending coup. When the time came, the working class could not defend itself or the Allende government from Pinochet’s forces.
The CPUSA program describes the all-people's-front as an “essential strategy for this historical period, not just a temporary tactic.”31 Socialism is thus always something for the distant future, a goal to pursue once the present task is complete. Yet, like Sisyphus and his boulder, the task is never concluded. An all-people’s-front will not permanently defeat the far right. Only a socialist republic can eliminate the excrement produced by capitalism in decline, and only a socialist political party can make a new republic a reality.
Bill of Rights Socialism and Constitutional Cultism
The Constitution is an eminently undemocratic document that stands in the way of working-class political rule. It creates an entire “political playing field”32 that sucks in well-intentioned reformers and keeps them busy fiddling over minutia. The Constitution cannot be ignored or corralled through tricks or slights of hand. Yet, the CPUSA program ducks the issue by proposing a “Peoples’ Bill of Rights” and explaining that “Once the power of the corporations is broken, the vast majority of the country can use the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, a Socialist Bill of Rights, and local governments to build real democracy and equality.”33 The Party’s belief that a “fundamentally new economic system” can be built on the existing Constitution is explicit; it is a hallowed document equivalent to the sacred tablets of the Ten Commandments. This devotion is apparent when they describe a speculative people’s Bill of Rights as “guaranteed” upon being “enshrined” in the Constitution.34
The insistence on maintaining the existing state apparatus is an abdication of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Once in power, the party must implement the minimum demands to upend and transform the existing state apparatus into a democratic republic - the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. From this position, the working class can begin the transition to communism. The CPUSA comrades are correct that the fullest expression of democracy is in the interests of the working class. Democracy is the light and air needed by the proletariat to wage an effective struggle.
However, the extension of democracy does not cease at the doors of the White House, the shrine of the Constitution, the halls of the Supreme Court, or the pentagonal grounds of the Department of Defense. The indirectly elected president holds an ever-increasing amount of power and directs the military of the world’s foremost imperial power. The Constitution (designed to guard against change) enshrines the separation of powers to hedge against the boogeyman of popular will in the House of Representatives (the only body with a nominal claim to popular representation) and slows down the process of legislation by directly elected representatives. The Supreme Court is not elected by universal and direct suffrage and works primarily to defend the Constitution. The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade also led many people to question the Court’s ability to take up lower court rulings. Finally, the Department of Defense provides the physical force necessary to safeguard the sanctity of private property and bourgeois law and order.
The CPUSA’s loyalty to the Constitution leads them to abandon a revolutionary position. The demand for a Socialist Bill of Rights leaves the bourgeois state unscathed; in fact, it strengthens the state. So long as the existing constitutional order remains intact, demands for “liberty, and equality; free quality health care and education; living-wage jobs and decent housing; and a healthy environment”35 are just reforms. While the revolutionary party does include reforms as part of its demands, they exist as a means to create a democratic republic. A set of demands that leave the existing state intact serves only as a screen to hide bourgeois rule. The party plucks the fig leaf from absolutism only to become “oneself a screen for its nakedness.”36
In trying to adapt Marxist-Leninism to the United States, the comrades absorbed all the elements of the constitutional regime and dropped most of the Marxism they carried. What little remains lies mutilated beyond recognition. The program’s assurance that “socialism in the United States will have distinctive characteristics because it will emerge from our unique political culture”37 is just another superficial justification for reformism. Minimum demands must strengthen the working class while weakening the state. Such demands include a single legislative assembly elected by proportional representation; the abolition of the independent presidency and the Supreme Court's right of judicial review; the election of judges and other state officials; the expansion of jury trials and state-funded legal services; the unrestricted right of free speech; the abolition of copyright laws and monopolies of knowledge; and the abolition of police and standing army in favor of a people's militia characterized by universal training and service, with democratic rights for its members. The process could begin with organizing a nationwide election via direct, universal, and equal suffrage for an assembly tasked with writing a new Constitution for popular consideration rather than the radically minoritarian process enshrined in Article 5 of the existing Constitution.38 Enacted in full, these demands smash the existing order and create a democratic republic.
Monopolies and Stages
Like a Matryoshka doll that has gone west, the CPUSA program contains multiple programs corresponding to different stages on an imagined path to socialism. The first stage is the formation of a People’s Front to defeat the extreme right. After eliminating the first threat, the People’s Front will grow in strength, evolve into an anti-monopoly coalition, and turn its attention toward “the multinationals” (the nationalist assumption being that ‘genuinely American’ capitalists would join the fight). The defeat of the multinationals will signal the beginning of a new stage in which the anti-monopoly coalition will build proletarian consciousness and progress toward socialism. Multiple coalitions will merge with the Communist Party to create a force capable of pushing through the Socialist Bill of Rights. At some point, communism will emerge.
To the untrained eye, the discussion of monopolies is a bizarre aspect of an already strange program. Yet, references to the despotic power of monopolies - along with constant references to “the people” - have roots in older forms of American populism that pitted “the people'' versus “the elites.” The affinity towards populist rhetoric is explained by the reformist character of the CPUSA and its desire to create cross-class alliances in which, ultimately, workers’ interests play second fiddle. In addition, the program’s conception of revolution beginning only after defeating a series of foes follows the stagist theory of history often, though incorrectly, attributed to orthodox Marxism.38 In decades past, the stagist model was used to justify the fundamental impossibility of communism in one country. Today, it appears in the CPUSA’s program as a justification for continued reformism.
Road to Nowhere
The Communist Party’s program contains noble sentiments. We do not doubt these comrades' desire to realize a “system in which working-class people control their own lives and destinies.”39 Socialism is the fullest extension of democracy. The social republic overcomes the division between social and political existence. The final goal remains a society in which everyone contributes what they can and receives what they need to actualize their unique potential.
The CPUSA comrades are correct in declaring the need for a revolutionary party. They correctly state that victory is not abstract: it “relies not on slogans, gimmicks, or conspiracies but rather on developing the understanding of millions cultivated in hard struggles, an understanding that grows into full class and socialist consciousness.”40 Yet, their program is brimming with slogans. Take the assertion that the revolutionary party must be “dedicated to the interests of the whole class, dedicated to the long-term vision necessary for winning fundamental change.”41 An intrepid reader finishes the program without understanding the meaning of fundamental change. After so many pages, the phrase remains a floating signifier capable of the most opportunistic interpretations. This reversion to obscurity is a long way away from the concluding paragraph of the Socialist Party of America’s 1912 program: “Such measures of relief as we may be able to force from capitalism are but a preparation of the workers to seize the whole powers of government, in order that they may thereby lay hold of the whole system of socialized industry and thus come to their rightful inheritance.”42 As a party founded by the principled Left-Wing of the SPA and once animated by the fire of the Bolshevik Revolution, the CPUSA has fallen quite a long way.
The program is the loadstone of a socialist political party. A good program presents the demands necessary for taking power and creating a democratic republic (the minimum program) to initiate a transition to the ultimate goal of communism (the maximum program). Means and ends are united and never lose sight of each other. Demands are expansive though concrete, and resonate with the condition of all oppressed minority groups. Furthermore, a good program is clear, concise, and memorable. It leaves elaboration to party propagandists and trusts in the ability of the masses to decode an unfamiliar term and infer what is left unsaid. The latest CPUSA program is a mess. Quantity does not transform into quality; in this case, the former works against the latter. The working class will not find a road to power within its numerous pages. Its confusing proposals will lead only to the underwhelming and all-too-familiar dead end of class collaboration within the existing constitutional order.
Today, the Communist Party USA rests upon a mixed historical legacy marked by moments in which it acted as a vanguard of the working class in the highest sense of the phrase, as well as a long period in which it continues to be plagued by the lowest possible opportunism. In criticizing its present class collaborationist program, we hope to provide a resource to those in the Communist Party chafing under this orientation. As in the Democratic Socialists of America, the time has come for genuine communists to rebel against the dominant opportunism of the largest organizations of the working class political movement in the United States. We encourage Marxists in the Communist Party USA to begin openly discussing the course and future of their party and the entire socialist movement. The pages of Cosmonaut are open to them, and replies from defenders of the Communist Party’s current orientation are welcome as well - if only to train the arguments of their critics.
May the rebels prevail!
4. See Lenin’s comments on the relationship between anarchism and opportunism in chapter four of “Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch04.htm
6. Friedrich Engels. A Critique of the Draft Social Democratic Program of 1891. https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm
7. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.11
8. Ibid. p.2
9. Ibid. p.2
10. Ibid. p.60
11. Ibid. p.1
12. Ibid. p.33
13. Ibid. p.3
14. E. J. Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries, p.6: “The problem of those who write the history of communist parties is therefore unusually difficult. They must recapture the unique and, among secular movements, unprecedented temper of bolshevism, equally remote from the liberalism of most historians and the permissive and self-indulgent activism of most contemporary ultras. There is no understanding it without a grasp of that sense of total devotion which made the party in Auschwitz make its members pay their dues in cigarettes (inconceivably precious and almost impossible to obtain in an extermination camp), which made the cadres accept the order not merely to kill Germans in occupied Paris, but first to acquire, individually, the arms to do so, and which made it virtually unthinkable for them to refuse to return to Moscow even to certain imprisonment or death. There is no understanding either the achievements or the perversions of bolshevism without this, and both have been monumental; and certainly no understanding of the extraordinary success of communism as a system of education for political work.”
17. Kelley, Robin G.D. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
18. Naison, Mark D. Communists in Harlem During the Depression. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
19. For a more in-depth discussion on the united front, see chapter six of Mike Macnairs’ “Revolutionary Strategy.” http://ouleft.org/wp-content/uploads/Macnair-Revolutionary-Strategy.pdf
22. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.21
23. Ibid. p.3
24. Ibid. p.4
25. Ibid. p.41
26. Ibid. p.41
27. Ibid. p.41
28. Ibid. p.41
29. Ibid. p.41
30. For Karl Kautsky’s description of the various tricks used against the working class in the French Third Republic, see his “The Republican and Social Democracy in France.”
31. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.35
33. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.54
35. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.52
36. Friedrich Engels. A Critique of the Draft Social Democratic Program of 1891. https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm
37. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.53
38. For a detailed explanation of the logistics behind organizing a democratic vote for a new U.S. Constitution, see Johan Martell’s ‘Fight the Constitution! Demand a New Republic!’ https://cosmonautmag.com/2021/03/fight-the-constitution-demand-a-new-republic/
39. For Jack Conrad’s discussion of the sordid historiography of stagism, see https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1417/memory-wars/#fnref5
40. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.2
41. Ibid. p.56
42. Ibid. p.56
43. Socialist Platform 1912. http://sageamericanhistory.net/progressive/docs/SocialistPlat1912.htm
*The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Midwestern Marx Institute or its editors. Our Institute values having an open space for dialogue between Marxist forces seeking to advance the struggle of the working class.
Luke Pickrell and Myra Janis are members of the Marxist Unity Group (MUG), a faction within the Democratic Socialists of America dedicated to building class independence and programmatic unity. The authors hope to engage CPUSA comrades and wider sections of the left in a discussion about building party programs capable of charting a strategic path forward for socialists.
3/7/2023 03:48:56 pm
3/14/2023 02:46:41 pm
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